As Denis Gurianov sat in the locker room at American Airlines Center, just hours away from his NHL debut in the Dallas Stars regular season finale, he was surrounded by media looking for some pregame quotes. The 19-year-old Russian forward appeared a little reluctant, and it wasn't a surprise. He's been in North America less than a year and is still learning English, so getting peppered with questions by reporters can be a challenge.
But Gurianov went ahead and did the interview, talking with reporters for several minutes in English. And he did well.
"I am very excited to be here," Gurianov said. "I am a little nervous, but that's OK. I am going to try to help the team."
The interview was a sign of how far Gurianov has come since arriving in Texas last summer when those interviews with the media were done through a translator.
"It was a big adjustment for him coming over," said Stars GM Jim Nill. "He spent the summer here [getting acclimated]. His English is very good. He's progressed very well. He's understanding the culture. It's been a good year for him."
Gurianov had a good year on the ice as well, recording 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 57 games with the Texas Stars of the AHL. His 12 goals tied for sixth on the team and his 27 points were tops among Texas rookies.
"It's good," Gurianov said of his time in the AHL. "I play a lot. I play on the power play, overtime."
Gurianov played in all situations, scoring on the power play and shorthanded. He tied for the team lead with five game-winning goals, including one in overtime.
"He played well," said Nill. "Like everybody else, he's had his ups and downs. Started a little bit slow, which we knew he would. It's a tough league for a young player."
And as with any player coming over from Europe, there was the adjustment to the North American game for Gurianov.
"It's faster, smaller rink," Gurianov said. "Fast game. [More physical], a little bit."
There's a lot to like about Gurianov, a 6-3, 200-pound winger who shoots left. The Stars like his attitude, his willingness to learn and his desire to be a good teammate. And they like his speed and skill.
"He's got great speed. He's a big man, big body. His speed is as good as anybody," said Nill. "He gets on pucks. He uses his speed to intercept pucks. You go down there and watch him play, and a lot of times you'll see him get two or three breakaways in a game."
Texas center Jason Dickinson had Gurianov on his line at times this season.
"Gurianov has a ton of speed on the wing," Dickinson said. "It's a very good asset for me as a centerman. I can hit him with the puck in stride, and he can take it wide and make it tough on those defensemen all night."
The Stars drafted Gurianov in the first round (12th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. In his first season after the draft, Gurianov stayed in Russia, playing primarily in the KHL, where he didn't get a lot of ice time on a struggling team. He recorded just five points (four goals, one assist) in 47 games, playing a lot on the lower lines. There was also a setback on the international stage when he lost out on making Russia's World Juniors team after he took an undisciplined major penalty in a pre-tournament game against Denmark.
But a year later, it was playing for Russia at the World Juniors that helped jump start Gurianov's first season in North America. In December, Dallas loaned Gurianov to Russia for the 2017 World Juniors in Toronto and Montreal and he tallied seven points (four goals, three assists) in seven games, including the game-winning goal in overtime as the Russians defeated Sweden to win the bronze medal.
"Too much fun," Gurianov said when asked about the World Juniors. "I was so happy when we won the bronze medal. It was good for me, good for team."
"He came back [from the World Juniors] a different player," said Nill.
The performance at the tournament seemed to give Gurianov a shot of confidence as he returned to the AHL. He scored eight of his 12 goals with Texas after returning from the tournament. That strong performance over the second half of the AHL season led Dallas to call up Gurianov for the final game of the NHL season.
"When we were looking at who we were going to bring up his name was always on the list, but we always said let's just let him be," Nill said. "And then we got to a point where we said he is playing as good as anybody else, let's get him up here."
Gurianov played 13:06 in Dallas' final game, a 4-3 shootout win over Colorado. He registered three shot attempts, one hit, and three blocked shots while playing left wing on a line with Gemel Smith and Mark McNeill.
"It felt good. I was happy to play and get a chance," Gurianov said. "Nervous, for sure. Of course first shift I have puck, and it's like, wow."
Chances are Gurianov will still need some seasoning before he is ready to make the jump to the NHL full-time. He's still young and has more to learn about the pro game in North America. But he made some impressive strides in his first pro season in the AHL.
"What a great year," Nill said. "He turned pro and had a good World Juniors. He's really learned the pro game in the American League, and he got a chance to show what he could do in the NHL. That's a pretty good season for him."
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.